A Sense of Place in a Bipolar World
by: Emily Glossner Johnson
Bipolar disorder has taken me to places to which many people have never been. I’ve been hospitalized four times at two different hospitals and in a partial hospitalization program twice at yet another hospital (a partial hospitalization program involves a person with a mental illness going to a hospital during the day for intensive group and individual therapy). My times in the psychiatric ward lasted between three to ten days, and the partial hospitalization programs lasted for six weeks. I have not been hospitalized either partially or in a psychiatric ward since 2003 and hope that this trend will continue. That said; my hospital stays have given me the unique sense of place that I have used, or perhaps will use, in my writing.
In the psychiatric ward, I have felt strangely comfortable. I was in a place where it was known that I had an illness. I was able to give in to the illness, so to speak, while seeking help and healing. I didn’t have to hide my feelings and thoughts. The same is true for the partial hospitalization programs. It felt good and right to be able to discuss my illness with others who could relate to it. As negatively as psychiatric hospital stays may sometimes be portrayed in popular culture, I found comfort in knowing that my stays would help make me better.
These places have affected my writing. My hospital stays have created images and incidents which have been seared into my brain and which may come out in my writing one day… or perhaps already have in subtle, convoluted ways. Once, in the psychiatric ward, there was a young woman who carried around a doll; she seemed to truly believe that the doll was a real baby—her baby. She took it with her everywhere and showed it off to other patients. Another time, there was a woman who occasionally yelled out the word “absolutely”. Occasionally, I would hear the word coming from across the ward: “Absolutely! Absolulely! Ab-so-lutely!”
In the partial hospitalization program, the people I met remained vivid over the years. There was a woman who was grieving so severely for the loss of her mother. There were people with dual diagnoses (people who have drug addictions—alcohol, cocaine, heroin, etc.—but who also have a mental illness). Another woman had such terrible postpartum depression that she couldn’t function without the help of the program. As different as we all may have seemed, we all had mental illnesses, and this common ground created a safe place to talk and heal.
In addition to storing memories of these places to which I have been, I have formed in my writing a safe place for a number of my characters. I have created the town of Haversville, New York, a town which exists only in my imagination, but which sits on the edge of the very real Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Many of my stories, both published and not-yet-published, take place in Haversville. It’s a lovely town populated by interesting people from many walks of life. I love to imagine what’s going on there, which often results in a story, but often merely provides me with comfort in knowing that I have made up this place because I, too, reside there when I am thinking about it.
Having a strong sense of place is important to me as a person with bipolar disorder, whether the place is in my writing or in real life. As a person with bipolar disorder, I thrive on routine, comfort, as much control of my surroundings as possible, and a sense of belonging.